I was listening to the Holy Qur’an; it was Sûrah Al-Sajdah (‘The Prostration’), verse 12:
“If you could but see when the criminals are hanging their heads before their Lord, [saying], “Our Lord, we have seen and heard, so return us [to the world]; we will work righteousness; indeed, we are [now] certain.”
As I was listening, it occurred to me that this is usually my reaction after I have published a paper and then discovered a new piece of data or evidence that would have influenced the paper, either by making the claim stronger or by making the analysis more compelling, or even by changing my mind about writing the paper. I would wish to be given the opportunity to rewrite the paper, to include the extra piece of data or evidence. This is my reaction though the piece of data or evidence that I discover after publishing the paper is not about absolute truth—it is related to my paper only as far as my mind is able to determine. By contrast, the criminals’ reaction comes after they have discovered the absolute truth, which is why they will be ‘hanging their heads’ in shame—since they did not care to pursue the evidence for the existence of Allah.
This led me to wonder about the similarity between the process of research, the so-called Scientific Method, and the process that believers in God engage in before they become convinced that Allah is the God worthy of worship. In what follows, I briefly describe the research process and show that it is the same as the process of discovering the most important truth about our existence in this life. This truth is usually approached through discovering either that Allah Almighty is the God we all need to find, or that Islam is the Religion, or that the Holy Qur’an is the Book, or that Muhammad (ﷺ) is the Prophet.
Before we researchers write a paper, we formulate a question based on a number of observations, facts, or basically a set of data. For example, we linguists observe that while the English sentence
‘Ahmad is a-teacher‘
requires a verb (‘is’), the Arabic equivalent,
‘Ahmad-u XXX mudarris-un‘
And so we ask, Why does the Arabic sentence not require, nor does it even tolerate, a verb in this kind of sentence construction?
‘Ahmad-u ya-kûn-u mudarris-an’ (incorrect)
‘Ahmad-u mudarris-un’ (correct)
Ahmad is a-teacher (correct)
The first sentence above is ungrammatical, meaning it is not a properly formed Arabic sentence—even though the meaning of the two-word Arabic sentence is equivalent to the three-word English sentence below it.
We then examine various aspects of the morphology (possible forms and relationships of words) and syntax (possible arrangements of words and phrases in a sentence) of these (and other) sentences in Arabic to find a ‘good’ explanation for this difference. There are various requirements that are to be followed in order to meet with the standards of the Scientific Method:
- An explanation is usually proposed within a (theoretical) framework.
- The explanation should be one based on the primary data and supported by them.
- The explanation should also be one that does not conflict with other relevant data.
- The explanation should ideally be one which also addresses relevant issues within the morphology and syntax of Arabic.
- The paper should also provide a critique (or criticism) of the available explanations of this difference between English and Arabic, and
- The paper should make sure that the proposed explanation/answer has more advantages than disadvantages.
In spite of all the above precise requirements, the explanation or answer we formulate need not necessarily be the absolute truth!
The process that people engage in, and which ultimately leads them to the belief that Allah is the God worthy of worship is not much different in its seeking to arrive at assured correctness. An inquisitive mind would make a number of observations about certain phenomena (facts) in space, the geology of the earth, the human body, the animal kingdom, the plants, the mountains, the sea, etc…
“We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” [Sûrah Fuṣṣilat (‘Explained-in-detail’), 41:53]
and then would try to make ‘sense’ out of them; this ‘sense’ is usually as sophisticated and as far-reaching as the person’s thinking abilities (and education) are. And sometimes a single experience or observation is sufficient to convert someone to Islam. There is a website which presents judgments about the Holy Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) by 13 scientists specializing in anatomy, embryology, obstetrics and gynecology, geology, astronomy, and marine geology, as well as providing a list of scientific facts (recent discoveries) that are available in (or compatible with) the Holy Qur’an.
A question similar to what those scholars ask might be one related to the word “أنزلنا”, ‘anzal-nâ, meaning ‘ We – sent down’, which appears in the Holy Qur’an in relation to nine different items:
- The Holy Qur’an (12:2),
- The Torah (5:44),
- The Gospel (3:65),
- the angels (6:8),
- punishment (29:34),
- water (23:18),
- iron (57:25),
- raiment and adornment (7:26),
- and manna and quails (2:57).
The observation is that Allah Almighty states that all these nine are (or have been) sent down from the sky/heavens, but that some of them are not likely to have come from the sky. The Question is: Have they all really been sent down from the sky? The Arabic word for ‘sky/heavens’ is “السماء”, al-samâ‘, and it refers to anything that is ‘above us’, from the lowest layers of our atmosphere all the way to the ‘seventh heaven’ and beyond. The answer to this question may be approached in many ways. One approach is to assume that since, to many believers, some of these nine items (like The Torah, The Gospel, the angels, and punishment) have been sent down from the heavens, then it is worth investigating whether the other items have also been sent down from the heavens/by Allah.
That the Holy Qur’an must have come from God and not from a human being is already stressed by many scholars, including ones quoted in the aforementioned website. How about the latter four items?
- As for water, it has been argued that it actually came down to earth from outer space, composed as a result of chemical interaction between oxygen and hydrogen, which result from star explosions.
- Iron has also been claimed to have been sent down from the outer space, created from explosions that result from nuclear fusions in extremely hot stars.
How about the last two (or rather four) items?
- How about raiment and adornment? ‘Adornment’ is actually a translation of the Arabic word “ريش” rīsh, which means “feathers”, which are associated with birds. “ريش” is associated with fine dress, and is mentioned here to reflect the level beyond covering one’s body with clothes (raiment), as a sign of luxury; in colloquial Arabic, the word “متريش” mitrayyish is said of someone who lives a luxurious life.
- As for manna and quails, it is not hard to conceive that quails have been sent down from the sky; quails are birds and the sky is their natural field.
- This leaves us with raiment and manna; have they also been sent down from the sky, as Allah says in the Qur’an? If so, then, at least, the Qur’an is the This is left for science to prove or disprove, and I think it is a matter of time.
Now, the position that “the researchers’ method of answering questions” is similar to “the method used by searchers for God,” adopted here, leads to the conclusion that the best searchers for the truth about God (and those who reach it) are usually the best researchers in their fields (sciences, humanities, social sciences, etc…), or that they are scholars or scientists in the true sense of their profession. Indeed, Allah says
“It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allah.” [Sûrah Fâṭir (‘Creator’), 35:28]
But then, are all human beings researchers so that they would be good searchers for the truth and ultimately reach the true God, Allah? In other words, did Allah Almighty create all human beings with the ability to observe, question, think, learn and make choices and decisions for themselves, that is, to be true scholars? The answer seems to be ‘YES.’
University of Kansas Mathematics Professor Jeffrey Lang (and what’s more scientific than mathematics?!) describes his first step in the process of conversion to Islam, a very instructive experience for us to note. Prof. Lang refers to the following verse:
“Behold, your Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Will You place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood, while we do celebrate Your praises and glorify Your Holy Name?” He said: “Truly, I know what you do not know.” [Sûrah Al-Baqarah (‘The Cow’), 2:30]
He says that after he read it he felt that the angels were right. Basically, why should God create man, a corruptive and violent creature (according to the angels’ experience with non-angel creatures), and assign him this noble role, when the angels are worshiping and glorifying God, that is, they are more appropriate for the task of worship, since they are fully obedient.
Prof. Lang’s reaction to the angels’ question was:
“That was my question; that was my life; that was … my childhood, all of it, just encapsulated in those fifteen words; and I was shocked; I thought the author is committing theological suicide.”
And that led him to discover the answer that Allah had for the angels for doing something that was against Prof. Lang’s own rational judgment, as well as theirs. He continued,
“I had to find out how it answered the question, as disturbing as I thought the question was … and so I was hooked; I wanted to see how the author answered that question, so I began reading through the Qur’an.”
I have always said to my students, “If your mind is ‘good’ enough to come up with a ‘good’ question, no matter how hard, then it is certainly ‘good’ enough to come up with a ‘good’ answer.” Prof. Lang had had the ‘good’ question in his mind long before he read verse 30 of Sûrah Al-Baqarah, and so was able to ‘see’ the ‘good’ answer when he encountered it. Congrats Professor! I congratulate him also because he was able to make out of this verse (and the following ones) —given his scientific approach—more than I (the Arab) could ever make out of it, since I used to read the Qur’an at the surface level, like reading any other book. Thinker Lesley Hazleton comments on the fact that very few people truly understand the Holy Qur’an. She says:
“Part of the problem I think is that we imagine that the Qur’an can be read as we usually read a book … as if God —and the Qur’an is entirely in the voice of God speaking to Muhammad— was just another author on the best seller list.”
Prof. Lang says he found the answer to his question in the next three verses:
“And He [Allah] taught Adam the names of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell me the names of these if you are right.” They said, “Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.” He said, “O Adam, inform them of their names.” And when he had informed them of their names, He [Allah] said, “Did I not tell you that I know the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you conceal.” [Sûrah Al-Baqarah (‘The Cow’), 2:31-33]
According to Prof. Lang, and I agree, these verses show that man is different from angels in that while angels are submissive to the will of God, man is a creature that can learn (the “names of things,” which symbolizes learning language and the concepts it represents), a task that requires thinking, which again reflects intellectual activity, and so the ability to make choices and decisions. Now this learning creature can choose to “spread corruption and shed blood” (2:30) or to be righteous and do good deeds. It is his choice to be good or bad, a choice he reaches using his endowed intellect, and for which he will be accountable.
And I believe that the invitation to think and contemplate, which is everywhere in the Qur’an, is there so as to invoke or activate this intellectual ability, to make the human mind engage in research in order to answer questions about God. Therefore, though it is true that we are told to ‘believe in the unseen’ (الإيمان بالغيب) and to believe in the Prophet (ﷺ) and his message (without being able to see God and without being able to know the truth through seeing), we are equipped with what it takes to reach the truth through asking questions and pursuing answers. After all, at least some of us, the scholars, rely on these intellectual abilities when we do research (to get a job/earn a living), and when we seem confident about the findings.
And I believe that it would be unfair to be held accountable by God for not finding out about Allah if we were not provided with sufficient data and evidence (‘signs’) and were not equipped with the necessary means (a good mind) to reach the true God. This is because the disbelievers would then have a good argument for not believing in Allah:
‘There wasn’t good evidence for Your [Allah’s] existence’, or
‘Our minds couldn’t lead us to You.’
In this regard, Allah says,
“[We have sent] Messengers who gave good news as well as warning, so that mankind, after (the coming of) the messengers, should have no plea against Allah, for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. [Sûrah Al-Nisâ’ (‘The Women’), 4:165]
Consider the following:
Narrated Aliyyu ibnu Abî Ṭâlib that the Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“There are three [types of] people whose actions are not recorded: a sleeping person till he awakes, a child till he is a grown up, and an insane [or feeble-minded] person till he is restored to reason or recovers his sense.” (Sunan Abu Dawud 4403)
Why would these limited categories be exempt from accountability? It would be because they are unable to ‘see’ the data and evidence, whether for lack of vision (the sleeping) or for lack of reason (the immature, and the insane). Under normal circumstances, human beings are accountable because they are able to see and understand the ‘signs’ of God all around them.
And to me, verses 31-33 of Sûrah Al-Baqarah also indicate that the gift of language and the ability to acquire it say a great deal about the powers of the human intellect. Simply stated, since man can accomplish the very complex task of learning language (as linguists know better than others!), then man can learn anything else, too, and can observe, think, contemplate and ask questions like:
- Who created me and this whole universe?
- Why am I here?
- What should I be doing?
- Is it fair that some people commit atrocities and die without accountability?
- When will the accountability (punishment and reward) take place?
Prof. Lang says that language allows man to learn about other people’s experiences and accomplishments, ones made in the past and present and in all parts of the world—which leads to enriching human knowledge, with “every generation learning from the generation before it.” All this should empower the human intellect and help prepare man to ask the right questions and to pursue their answers —questions like those which Prof. Lang had in his mind before reading the Holy Qur’an.
This cumulative knowledge —discovered by man and documented using language— stresses Prof. Lang, provides the various pieces of data and evidence that should lead inquisitive minds to formulate the right questions and pursue their answers. But why was language chosen to be the criterion, that is, the proof for man’s intellectual capabilities? Maybe because it is the only piece of knowledge that every human being gets to learn (some form of). Not all human beings get to learn math or physics or chemistry or medicine or engineering, or any of the many disciplines that we find in university programs nowadays. This reminds me of a piece of research written by one of my students [i] who found a strong relationship between multilingualism and cognitive development. The central role of language in this regard, states Prof. Lang, is closely related to the first revealed verses of the Qur’an:
Recite in the name of your Lord who created. Created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous. Who taught by the pen. Taught man that which he knew not. [Sûrah Al-‘Alaq (‘The Clot’), 96:1-5]
This again shows emphasis on reading and writing, which are sophisticated language-related activities, able to lead the ‘learners’ to Allah, Who has actively revealed his guidance in human language to communities across the ages. Accordingly, it should not be a surprise that what got Prof. Lang into Islam was the fact that he “ran out of things to read” (his books hadn’t yet arrived to his new address), and so he decided to read the Qur’an!
None of us, I am sure, wants to be ‘hanging our heads’ before our Lord, in shame that we have missed any opportunity during our earthy lives to recognize Him, to understand His Book, to follow His Prophet (ﷺ), and to do full righteousness at our every opportunity. I believe that the relevant questions and answers are there in whatever we choose to specialize in, or do in general, no matter how irrelevant it may seem.
[i] Othmani, Sahar. 2018. Multilingualism and Oman Academic Culture. Oman Journal of ELT, 3(1):27-47